Sunday, May 28, 2006

Living in the Theorists' Paradise

I find myself surrounded by the very pleasant scenery of Corsica, where I am attending the Cargese Summer School. I am sitting in a computer room, opposite the lecture theatre and there is a gentle mineral fragrance in the air carried by the rain. Fortunately this is the last day of the school and the first day an afternoon trip to the beach has been rained off. That's right: trips to the beach, and theoretical physics. Sometimes it is good to stop and appreciate your fortune.

The Cargese school commenced two weeks ago and covered a number of topics under the heading 'Strings and Branes: The present paradigm for gauge interactions and cosmology'. The school is located 20 minutes from the village of Cargese and is situated on the beach: at least it's a 2 minute walk to the beach from the institute, and views from the rooms on-site overlook a wonderful seascape, cliffs, beach and all. But, I gush... suffice it to say, it really is very nice here, and it is a pleasure to be here.

Not only is it nice it is steeped in physics history. For example, there is a peninsula called the t'Hooft peninsula where t'Hooft is supposed to have sat down and worked through the ideas that led to his Nobel prize on gauge theories and renormalization. I sat on the same peninsula, but I had forgotten my sunblock and had to retreat prior to having any great thoughts. In the garden of the institute is a tree, which is referred to as the wisdom tree, where students gather for discussion (in theory) and where it is said the lecturers have, in the past, climbed up into the branches of the tree to regail the students. Who can say how much truth there is in this. There was, in fact, some confusion as to which tree was indeed the one, true Wisdom Tree. All very worthy of Enid Blyton rather than the high energy physics community. From the garden it is possible to look out past the trees and locate a small island about a mile or so out in the sea. This is referred to as Polyakov Island after Polyakov swam out to it during one school. So, there is a sense of taking part in the continuation of physics lore while you are here. Perhaps the most astonishing feature of the school is it's two dogs: Calabi-Yau and Instanton. Calabi-Yau is seemingly quite an old dog, and saunters in and out of lectures at will (his world-weary presence, often asleep at the front is deemed a measure of respect for the lecturer, after all Calabi-Yau has probably listened to many more lectures in Cargese than anyone present - he probably already knows the full quantum theory of gravity and may be the most well-educated dog in the world). Furthermore on the nights spent in town he would invariably make the twenty minute journey and come and find us, even is we were stationed at house in town for a party, (where he would wait of his own volition patiently outside for our departure) and then he would join us for the journey home along the dark road. Although it is in truth hard to say who was leading whom. Not only is he probably the smartest dog in the world (if Carlsberg made dogs...) but he's also a wild party animal too. See picture above of Calabi-Yau working at full capacity.

I want to give you a feeling for some of the practical details of getting to Cargese just in case you are thinking of attending in the future. First off: the high energy physics school occurs every two years - if it's a World Cup or European Cup year then the school is on too and you have to apply early in the year. Registration this year closed in February. Cargese is on the south-west coast of Corsica, about an hours ride from Ajaccio airport, and you will almost certainly have to change flights somewhere in France to find a plane that will land in Ajaccio. The island has been invaded a number of times and this is reflected by the fact that you can get by speaking Italian here instead of French if you wish. Of course the modern invader is the tourist and so you can also survive using English, with a smattering of French. In fact, the locals do not like the people who buy a home here just for the holiday season and such houses have been known to burn down. Since you are likely to be taking a connecting flight you might want to be wary of one flight being delayed. This had significant financial implications for me since there were only two buses available from Ajaccio to Cargese upon arrival, and when my flight was delayed (resulting in 5 hours sitting in a Parisian cafe at the terminal in Orly, Paris - not quite 'living the dream') we had to hire a taxi at a cost of 130euros - this was subsidised by the School, and reduced to 100euros. You might think that arriving after midnight with no-one to meet you might be a problem but life at the Institute is very relaxed - so there was a poster on the wall and written in green ink was my name alongside the others who were late arrivals. Next to my name was a room number where I would be sleeping. The room was left open and keys were inside. The Institute is significantly remote for this calm attutude to security to be viable. But it is the little things like this that help to make Cargese a very peaceful place to be. The only other practical advice I can give you is that, just as in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, you should bring a towel.

The peaceful setting of the school and the emphasis of a healthy mixture of relaxation and work are wonderful. The mixture of mostly PhD students and young Postdocs was great for initiating collaborations and building relationships for future work and the school itself is the best I have been to during my PhD. Not only in terms of meeting fellow students but also in terms of the lecture quality. We heard lectures from De Wit, Strominger, Harvey, Douglas and Connes amongst others, and we even got to feel "the power of Nekrasov", on topics ranging from black hole entropy to noncommutative geometry with a healthy dose of lectures about realising the standard model in the string theory picture.

In the days of the cold war the school was funded by Nato and operated as a forum for bringing non-soviet scientists together. These days the event is quite global, but without a cold war the funding harder to come by. The school this year was supported by the European Science Foundation and CERN and a hearty thank-you is offered to the organisers of the school for the marvellous job they did to make this happen. So thank-you's to: Laurent Baulieu, Eliezer Rabinovici, Jan de Boer, Michael Douglas, Pierre Vanhove and Paul Windey. Without their organisation of funding, speakers, participants, schedule, support and ringing of the cowbell (although none had quite the enthusiastic glint in their eye as Pierre Vanhove when he got his hands on the bell) to get us into the lectures, Cargese quite simply would not have occurred, and it is hard to imagine it being organised any more successfully than this group managed. A special thank-you must also be reserved for Elena who took charge of all the school's administration and ensured everything ticked over nicely during the two weeks.

Some pictures and commentary on the lectures to follow.

I hate to trip but I gotta 'lope.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Back in Black

Well it's been a while... I've often heard people wonder how researchers find the time to write a blog and do their work. Well while some bloggers are superhuman, this one is not. I've had a busy and not to mention stressful start to the year and really the blog only gets my attention when everything else is in good working order. What have I been up to? Well first of all I was applying for postdoc positions earlier in the year, the necessary finger-crossing meant that typing a blog became impossible for a short while. I was offered and accepted very happily a position at the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa where Augusto Sagnotti has recently moved. Much hurrahing all round. Second I have just been working hard on what will be the last part of my thesis. That's not to say the thesis is all written up and ready to submit, oh no I have left two months for that, and a spare third, just in case. Finally, a confession: I really haven't been to any seminars for ages now. It's peculiar but the seminar series at KCL has dried up for the last few weeks. So today I tidied up my papers, organised my room and put everything in its right place to begin writing up. But of course I better get my blog up to date first so I can give a running commentary of sorts on the ups and downs of submitting a thesis.

In my absence there have been a number of exciting papers on E10 and E11, in particular:
  • Enhanced Coset Symmetries and Higher Derivative Corrections by Neil Lambert and Peter West
  • Curvature corrections and Kac-Moody compatibility conditions by Thibault Damour, Amihay Hanany, Marc Henneaux, Axel Kleinschmidt and Hermann Nicolai
  • IIA and IIB spinors from K(E10) by Axel Kleinschmidt and Hermann Nicolai
  • The first two demonstrate the very exciting emergence of higher derivative terms very naturally from the large algebra approaches, in the first case for E11 and in the second case for E10. The third paper continues the success of the E10 research teams ability to find fermions in their approach, for which there is as yet no equivalent result for E11.

    There have also been numerous great links from the other blogs, via Lubos we have the Horizon episode on Feynman, from which the stories will be very familiar, but it might be nice to see the man himself telling them. Thanks to Peter Woit we have links to all the talks at the recent Eurostings 2006 conference in Cambridge. Of particular interest to those predisposed to very large algebras are,
  • E11 and Ten Forms by Peter West
  • Hidden Symmetries and Fermions in M-Theory by Axel Kleinschmidt
  • Since videos and transparancies are available for all talks this conference site is highly recommended, also of interest will be the following talks:
  • The Quantum Structure of Black Holes by Samir Mathur
  • Singularities, Black Holes, and Attractor Explosions by Eva Silverstein
  • But there are plenty of good talks available here, so go and find out the latest from your favourite stringy research area.

    Also I've noticed two review articles for the E11 approach to M-Theory are now available on the archive. They are both a couple of years old, but worth a look:
  • Algebraic structures in M-theory by Ling Bao
  • Hidden Symmetry Unmasked: Matrix Theory and E(11) by Shyamoli Chaudhuri
  • Now I have to make sure my thesis is nothing like these reviews...Ho-hum.

    So let's see, things to do: 1. Learn Italian 2. Write-up thesis. So... the first thing I am going to do is fly off to Corsica tomorrow for the Cargese summer school (at much personal sacrifice to my better desires to start writing up!), and internet permitting I'll try and write some blog postcards from there.

    I've just checked the weather and tomorrow it's supposed to be 31 Celcius and sunny, which sure beats the grey sheets of rain we had in Greenwich today.